Remaking a City

Winter 2013


By Elizabeth Millard


Remaking a City

Cities are constantly renovating—fixing potholes, freshening sidewalks, adding landscaping—but Oklahoma City was ready for a bigger change. Rather than continue with the usual pace of urban tweaks, landscape architects and planners decided on an ambitious, large-scale project that would remake 180 acres of land, effectively transforming the downtown into a whole new city.

feature1“To my knowledge, there’s never been another city that took on a renovation of this scale,” says Jereck Boss, a principal in The Office of James Burnett, the landscape architecture firm that developed the project’s master plan. “You just don’t see cities willing to tear everything out and replace it. Many cities do a block or two, but this is the whole downtown.”

As part of the larger aesthetic and functional vision, the firm opted for pavers to be used in “amenity zones” between streets and sidewalks. These zones, with abundant trees and benches, create a unified look to the project that likely wouldn’t have been possible
without the pavers. “Pavers have been a key piece to this transformation,” says Boss.

Seeing the Vision

The impetus for Project 180 was twofold: walkability and business retention.

According to Shannon Cox, project coordinator for Oklahoma City, a 2008 ranking of walkable cities by Prevention magazine was a harsh wake-up call. Out of 500 cities, Oklahoma City came in last place, she says. Similar surveys also gave the city low marks, and one website called it “the land of no sidewalks.” The city commissioned its own survey about traffic patterns and found that a lack of amenities was very problematic for pedestrians, Cox notes.

About the same time, a major boost for renovation came in the form of corporate interest. Devon Energy, one of the city’s largest employers with 5,400 employees, began considering a headquarters move to Houston. The company’s CEO, Larry Nichols, wanted to stay in Oklahoma City, where he’d spent most of his life, but was hesitant to construct an expensive new building in the midst of a city in disrepair.

Devon proposed construction of a 50-story, $750 million skyscraper in the center of the city, but issued a challenge: It would only get built if the city could embark on a major revamp. “They wanted the area surrounding their building to be just as nice as what they had planned,” says Scott Howard, principal at Howard Site Design, which did the landscape architecture for Project 180.

To pay for such a large-scale change, Devon agreed to put up about 10 years’ worth of tax monies. With that tax increment financing, the planning began in 2010, and the city laid out a $128 million, two-phase plan that would take four years to complete, resulting in a whole new cityscape.

Creating Momentum

The Office of James Burnett was chosen to lead the city through a steering committee process that included design development. In all, it took 16 architectural, engineering, and landscape architecture firms to handle all of the revamp components.

“The level of teamwork and coordination was pretty impressive,” says Howard. “Everybody had to work together or this wasn’t going to happen.”

feature2Devon Energy set the bar high when it came to design. The company had not only embarked on a new headquarters building, but also planned a lush corporate campus directly adjacent to the city’s 16-acre (6.5 ha) Myriad Botanical Gardens.

In conjunction with that effort, Project 180 focused on creating a city that would land at the top of walkability surveys through new landscaping, public art, decorative street and pedestrian lighting, and renovation of the lawn in front of City Hall.

Myriad Botanical Gardens also received significant improvements, including construction of an outdoor amphitheater, ice skating rink, grand entrance, and children’s play area.

Role of Pavers

One of the most significant aspects of Project 180 has been the use of concrete pavers, an important part of giving the city a walkable feel that it had been missing. Planners chose pavers that were 6 x 12 in. (150 x 300 mm), for a surface that flowed with the urban feel of the project.

The majority of the pavers are a modified charcoal color, of which three-quarters were shotblasted and the rest have a standard finish. The second color selected was tan, one-quarter of which were shotblasted. Using the two different colors and textures created visual interest, Howard says.

The entire project called for 430,000 pavers. As a subbase, concrete was used, with bedding sand above that.

The amenity zones, where pavers are used, feature trees, benches, bike racks, multi-space parking meters, and waste and recycling receptacles. Cox notes that pavers were chosen over concrete for their aesthetic potential, given their unique patterning, color, and finish variance. Also, she believes that pavers will have greater longevity and sustainability.

Another top reason for using pavers was flexibility. Because city services like water mains and sewer lines run underground next to roads, the city needed to be able to dig up parts of amenity zones occasionally and then put them back together without ruining the pleasant look of the area.

The sheer breadth of the project meant that challenges were likely to crop up, and they did, initially. Howard notes that it took time to settle on a pattern for pavers that didn’t result in “slivers of pavers” used in certain areas. “We didn’t want odd pieces just kind of stuck in there to fill the space,” he says.

Fortunately, the uniformity of the zones helped. Trees are spaced 22 ft (6.7 m) apart, lining up with parallel parking spaces. Even with the mixture of pavers, that consistency allowed landscape architects to create an aesthetically pleasing pattern for zones that are as functional as they are eye-catching.

Big Project, Big Future

Now in phase two of its development, Project 180 is scheduled for completion at the end of 2014, according to Cox. That’s about six months later than anticipated, but delays occurred when crews ran into inaccurately mapped utility lines and unexpected basement spaces when they dug up older downtown streets.

feature4Over the next year and a half, planners and construction teams will focus on revamping more streets, sidewalks, parks, and plazas. New bicycle lanes encourage more bicycle commuting, and the changes have created additional on-street parking spaces, helping to draw more people into the city.

Devon Tower, the new skyscraper that helped to kick off the project, was completed in October 2012, and includes a top-floor restaurant named Vast, which will give visitors a view of the area from 52 stories up.

When Project 180 is complete, it will be an impressive achievement, believes Boss, and pavers certainly play a big part of that. “They’re such a nice enhancement, and really go with the project,” he says. “With those, and with all other aspects of the project, Oklahoma City seems brand new.”